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NATO starts military exercises in Georgia

NATO began military exercises in Georgia yesterday in a move that Russia said threatened stability in the region.

A brief, bloodless mutiny at a tank base near Tbilisi on Tuesday cast a shadow over the start of the month-long exercises. Georgia accused Russia of involvement, a charge Moscow dismissed as "insane."

More than 1,000 soldiers from NATO countries, including the United States, will run through a simulated crisis response operation and peacekeeping exercises at a Georgian military base formerly used by the Russian air force.

Canadian soldiers were seen setting up command headquarters before field exercises get under way next week.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's domestic opponents have paralyzed Tbilisi with weeks of protests demanding he resign over his record on democracy and last year's war. They questioned the Georgian government's explanation for the mutiny.

"There are many versions of what really happened, but the one offered by the authorities is the least credible," said Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican Party.

NATO said the exercises should not be misused.

"Georgia is just hosting the exercise and nobody should interpret the exercise in a different way and use it for other purposes," a NATO spokeswoman said.

Further souring the mood, Russia announced the expulsion of two Canadian staff at NATO's information center in Moscow yesterday - a response to the Western military alliance's decision to throw two Russian diplomats out of Brussels last week over a spying scandal.

NATO said the expulsions were counterproductive at a time when the sides were working to improve dialogue and Canada asked the Russian ambassador to provide an explanation.

"Canada strongly regrets Russia's decision to expel two Canadians serving at the NATO Information Office in Moscow," said Catherine Loubier, spokeswoman for Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia wanted normal ties with NATO and that he would raise the situation in Georgia with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Washington later this week.

NATO, which invited many non-member countries to take part as well, insists the training exercises pose no threat to Russia.


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